De Stijl architecture offers dynamic conceptions of spatial relationships in reaction to
conventionally static, grounded architecture from the beginning of the 20th century.
Spatial innovation, based on principles developed by the De Stijl painter and writer Piet
Mondrian from the philosophical-mathematical writings of M.H.Schoenmaekers, is
clearly evident in three iconic De Stijl projects from the mid-1920s: Theo van Doesburg
and Cornelis van Eesteren’s Maison d’Artis te and Maison Particuliére and Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House in Utrecht,
the Netherlands. These modernist touchstones represent the synthesis of ideal universal
projections of space and everyday manipulations of life embedded within art.
Architecture proved to be the ideal art form to represent De Stijl through its ability to
transform space, surface, universal ideas, particular situations, exterior, and interior.
De Stijl as a collective modernist movement remains difficult to codify. Begun as a
virtual assemblage of avant-garde artists based in the Netherlands, it was founded and
controlled by the painter, writer, and architect Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931). To
characterize De Stijl as a truly united group or school of artists and architects is to
misrepresent the vicissitudes of a movement whose members were never in the same
place at the same time. Van Doesburg, the proselytizer for De Stijl, presented it to the
world as a close-knit, avant-garde collaborative unit of like-minded individuals with
common goals.
The work of De Stijl was disseminated primarily through its periodical, De Stijl, published
irregularly from 1917 to 1929 and in 1932 as a memorial issue for van Doesburg. Van
Doesburg, as its editor, published art, architecture, graphic design, essays, and manifestos
for an increasingly international audience. De Stijl as a collection of diverse projects coalesced
under van Doesburg in a desire to achieve international unity through “the sign of art.
The clearest way to distill De Stijl is to examine its ideas made evident in painting,
sculpture, graphic design, and, most significantly, architecture. Mondrian and van
Doesburg strove to achieve an ideal unity through projecting the tension of opposites—a
dialectical formation on its way to achieving synthesis through articulating and then
annulling issues of the individual versus the universal, nature versus spirit, particular
versus general. This was to be achieved through reform of past cultural conditions via Nieuwe Beelding,
or new forming (Neoplasticism). Van Doesburg attempted radical change through De
Stijl, derived from the international conflicts of World War I. He strove for universal
synthesis rather than Dutch nationalism, as evidenced in “Manifesto 1 of ‘De Stijl,’
1918,” published in Dutch, French, German, and English as “De Stijl,” “Le Styl,” “Der
Stil,” and “The Style” De Stijl set out to negate the concept of style in a universal
language through communicative art and architecture, and the concise format of the
manifesto was its primary textual vehicle. Van Doesburg contended that art (including
architecture) embodies the spiritual force of life. He scrutinized the historical
development of art as culminating “inevitably” in De Stijl as “The Style,” to synthesize
all previous styles into a homogeneous purity. His ideological construct, looking
simultaneously back into history and forward to a new art, codified polar opposites to
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create beauty in tension and synthesis. His manner of carrying out this process demanded
collective work in all the arts, an ultimately unfulfilled desire.
The painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) was De Stijl’s spiritual leader, providing its
philosophical foundation (Neoplasticism) and language for representing pure relations of
contrasts via horizontal-vertical oppositions and utilizing the primary colors red, blue,
and yellow with the noncolors black, white, and gray. Beyond his neoplastic painting,
Mondrian projected spatial architectural compositions and created rigorous interior
designs for his own studio spaces in Paris and New York. Mondrian championed the
development of De Stijl architecture, typically praising most built and unbuilt projects.
An early, perhaps the first, De Stijl work of architecture, appearing in its magazine in
1919, was the Villa Henny in Huis ter Heide, the Netherlands, by Robert van’t Hoff
(1887–1979), designed in 1915. This often published reinforeed-concrete house was
inspired by the residential architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom van’t Hoff visited
in the United States in 1914. The rectilinear, flat-roofed house features white planar
surfaces with gray bands of trim, standing aloof from its natural setting. Interior rooms
project symmetrically off a central space, a theme later transformed by van Doesburg.
Other early De Stijl projects typically involved interior alterations of existing rooms, such
as a children’s bedroom by Vilmos Huszár from 1920 and a doctor’s clinic by Gerrit
Rietveld from 1922, demonstrating a process of re-forming the past on the way to ideal
De Stijl architecture.
The formal debut of De Stijl architecture took place in 1923 under van Doesburg at
Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie L’ Effo rt Mode rne in Paris. This exhibition, Les Architectes du Groupe “de Styl,” displayed drawings, photographs,
and models by van Doesburg, Cornelis van Eesteren, Vilmos Huszár, Willem van
Leusden, J.J.P.Oud, Gerrit Rietveld, Jan Wils, and (surprisingly) Ludwig Mies van der
Rohe, who contributed a photograph of his 1922 Glass Skyscraper model. This grouping
of De Stijl architects (which at this time also included the Russian artist-architect El
Lissitzky) indicates the expansive assembly of international members for the movement.
Two projects attracting great attention from critics and later widely disseminated through
publications and other exhibitions were the Maison d’Artis te (Artist’s House) and the Maison Particulière (Private House).
Both were developed by van Doesburg in collaboration with van Eesteren (1897–1988)
specifically for the Paris exhibition. The Maison d’Artis te and the Maison Particulière, to be built of “iron and glass” and
“concrete and glass,” respectively, provided literal and figurative models for future
construction. As siteless, dynamic, spatial objects, each contains asymmetrical volumes
rotated about central voids, projecting primary-colored planes as floors, walls, and
ceilings into surrounding space. Van Doesburg constructed a model of the Maison d’Artis te and
photographed it from below as an object suspended in space to display its ability to
confront space and time and to expose its “sixth facade.” Van Doesburg prepared
axonometric “counter-construction” drawings for the Maison Particulière. These drawings emphasize the
oblique relationships between pure planes and convey the abstract qualities of infinite
extension without grounding them to a fixed vanishing point as in perspective. These
axonometric constructions sought to liberate space and surface from earthly associations,
or, as van Doesburg wrote in point 10 of his manifesto “Towards Plastic Architecture,”
“This aspect, so to speak, challenges the force of gravity in nature.”
The furniture maker and architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888–1964), an early De Stijl
participant who contributed a jewelry store design and assisted as a model builder for the
Paris exhibition, produced the most significant work of De Stijl architecture, the Schröder
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House in Utrecht, completed in 1924. Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair, initially produced without color in
1918, successfully mediated the transfer of De Stijl principles from painting to
architecture. This seemingly simple wood chair, painted in the primary colors plus black
in 1922 or 1923, is simultaneously articulated and synthetic and allows space to flow
through it uninterrupted. It, as well as the 1923 Maison Projects, inspired the De Stijl
principles demonstrated in the Schröder House. This tiny two-story structure provides
rich flexibility in its contrasting relations of elements and sliding partitions, allowing for
closed or open living arrangements. As a house of options, or a cabinet to live in, it
functions pragmatically and abstractly, attached to a series of row houses and opened
wide to the surrounding environment. Although constructed primarily with traditional
timber frame and brick in-fill, it appears as an a-material, innovative, anti-box in its
exterior photographed images and its projecting pinwheel plan. Its innovatively detailed
connections and built-in furnishings emphasized the house as a total work of art. Rietveld
drifted away from his associations with van Doesburg and De Stijl after the Schröder
House but continued a long career building throughout the Netherlands by developing
architectural relationships from De Stijl.
J.J.P.Oud (1890–1963), an urban architect practicing in Rotterdam, published essays
and projects in the periodical De Stijl but held a tenuous relationship to De Stijl and van
Doesburg after 1921. Van Doesburg collaborated with Oud on several residential
projects, adding stained glass and painted color patterns to Oud’s architecture. Oud was
simultaneously a pragmatist and an experimenter, as evident in his Wright-inspired
Purmerend Factory project from 1919, a large industrial con crete volume nestled into an
office area with a complex shallow-space facade. As a socially minded architect for the
city of Rotterdam, he designed several expedient public housing projects there. His
Spangen Housing (1919–21) and Tusschendijken Housing (1921–24), both displayed in
the 1923 De Stijl exhibition, achieved efficiency and economy through standardization
and use of brick as an everyday exterior material while including horizontal-vertical
articulations of corner elements related to spatial De Stijl ideas. His Kiefhoek Housing
(1925–29) contained a-material primary-color elements as a type of De Stijl village. His
temporary Superintendent’s Office (1923) for Oud-Mathenesse Housing was a De Stijl
folly in primary colors and cubic forms, derived from the paintings of Mondrian and van
Doesburg. Oud’s Cafe de Unie, built in Rotterdam in 1925, was bombed during World
War II and reproduced at another location in the city in 1986, signifying its architectural
stature conveyed through publications. Its facade, a billboard manifesto advertising De
Stijl, displays a low-relief composition of primary colors with integrated signage.
After 1924, van Doesburg and Mondrian clashed over appropriation of the diagonal
into the rectilinear compositions characteristic of De Stijl painting. Mondrian developed
his diamond compositions, rotating the frames of his paintings 45 degrees while retaining
the horizontal-vertical relationships of the rectilinear elements themselves to emphasize
extension of the boundaries of the artwork beyond the inconsequential oblique frame.
Van Doesburg, on the other hand, began at this time to invert Mondrian’s strategy,
employing diagonal relationships of lines and planes within an orthogonal frame.
Influenced by these interrelated yet oppositional developments, van Doesburg reified
their spatial implications in two rooms of the Cafe Aubette (dawn), constructed within an
18th-century building in Strassbourg, France, between 1926 and 1928. The complex
commission was carried out in conjunction with Hans Arp and Sophie Täuber Arp, who
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designed other rooms. This ultimate fusion of art and life using De Stijl ideas in
combination with off-the-shelf materials, furniture, and lighting fixtures resulted in an
ideal De Stijl forum. By re-forming the spaces of this nightclub with striking
manifestations of line and color in relation to the bodily activity of dancing and the
projection of cinema, van Doesburg temporarily accomplished De Stijl synthesis through
unity from the tension of opposites. The Small Dance Hall’s primary-color panels on the
walls and ceiling align orthographically with the rectilinear room, resulting in a clear
fusion of surface and space. Enacting van Doesburg’s transition into “elementarism” and
influenced by the oblique “counter-construction” drawings from the Maison Particulière, his Cinema-Dance
Hall features diagonal color patterns extending through the room’s corners to dismantle
the confines of the space. In the Cafe Aubette, reconstructed in 1995, the projection of
cinema and the gestures of bodies in motion establish a kinetic dialogue between art and
life. Synthesizing architecture, painting, sculpture, and applied arts as Ges amtkunstwerk, or total work of
art, van Doesburg created the ultimate De Stijl space and representation of modernism: a
dialectically constructed avant-garde cafe-salon interiorized as spatial art rather than
occupying rooms with art hung on the walls.
Van Doesburg built a simple house for himself and his wife, Nelly, in Meudon-Val-
Fleury, outside of Paris, between 1927 and 1930. Succumbing to tuberculosis, he died in
a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, in 1931. De Stijl as an avant-garde movement
unfortunately expired with van Doesburg. Subsequent developments of modernist and
contemporary architecture have been crucially reliant on the spatial conceptions of the De
Stijl architects, from the works of Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer to Peter Eisenman,
John Hejduk, and MVRDV. De Stijl architecture engaged space and surface in a
simultaneously elemental and universal manner, proposing meaning and spirituality
within abstraction and “pure” relations of forms.
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